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Yanghee Kim, Michael Tscholl spread Morgridge mission, innovation overseas

September 25, 2019
Yanghee Kim and Michael Tscholl at the Grenoble workshop.
Yanghee Kim and Michael Tscholl at the Grenoble workshop.

Yanghee Kim and Michael Tscholl are generating international excitement for their work with NIU’s CREATE Center.

During the summer, the researchers from the NIU College of Education’s Morgridge Endowed Chair Office participated in research workshops in Europe.

They made important contacts in robotics studies, compared notes with others conducting similar explorations and received invitations for further collaboration into ways that robots can empower human teachers to improve classroom teaching and learning.

June 17’s trip to France took the pair to the Grenoble Images, Speech Signal and Control headquarters for a session on multimodal communications design. The one-day excursion required a 90-minute train ride from Lyon, site of the main conference on Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL 2019).

One week later, they traveled to the University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy, for a June 25 workshop on child-robot interaction – more specifically, how and why children attribute mental states to humans and robots.

Kim, who serves as the CREATE Center director and the Morgridge Endowed Chair, and Associate Director Tscholl, who is also the Morgridge Research Professor, are pleased with the initial outcomes from those visits.

“I’m definitely more convinced about the direction I’m moving in,” says Kim, who regularly takes her toy-like robot Skusie into elementary school classrooms to observe kindergarteners and other young children as they relate to the machine.

“Education research, to me, is very applicable. The scholarship is important,” she adds, “but at the same time, we should be able to get our hands dirty working with children, schools and in the classroom, to see the impact of our work from theory into practice. We have a lot of room to grow and develop.”

Housed in the NIU College of Education, and supported by the Division of Research and Innovation Partnerships, the CREATE Center brings faculty and researchers from across campus, industry and organizations both local and global, to collaborate on multidisciplinary projects that create new knowledge and transform ideas into practice.

Faculty and student affiliates of CREATE also are charged with the design and research of innovative ways to support teaching and learning of marginalized groups of students in traditional education settings.

The foundation is strong, thanks to multiple factors.

For example, the two researchers remember a recent day when Skusie’s program unexpectedly malfunctioned during a classroom visit.

Children surrounded the robot in genuine concern, not asking the adults whether the robot was “broken” but rather asking Skusie herself if she was “sick.” When the children later determined that one of their classmates who had touched Skusie earlier that day was himself feeling ill, they decided he was to blame for passing on his germs.

Put simply, Kim and Tscholl say, the children accept Skusie as a human friend and not as a machine.

Such promising (and heartwarming) results are the product of strict adherence to developmental educational theory, Tscholl says.

“A robot’s influence on children is very strong, so we take every piece of our design seriously. Our design protocol is very systematic and thought-out,” he says. “And it’s not by chance that it works. It’s by design.”

Further strengthening their approach is the classroom testing – a “natural setting,” Kim says – that they say is unique in the mostly laboratory-based world of robot research and proved impressive to their European colleagues this summer.

“We’re very successful at designing for schools,” Tscholl says, adding that the international researchers “didn’t know it could be so successful because they didn’t take that step of taking technology into the classrooms.”

Nina, a robot developed by the Grenoble group.

Although the French researchers found this fascinating, NIU’s team says, they are not yet prepared to enter full-scale collaboration. Their work at Grenoble does hold great potential, however, as it seeks to design robots able to intelligently interpret and respond to facial signals and vocal inflections.

Italy’s workshop participants, on the other hand, agreed to undertake several projects in conjunction with their new cohorts from DeKalb.

Among them are the design of tasks to uncover children’s “Theory of Mind” with regard to robots and to examine different forms of child-child mediation carried out by a social robot. The team also will work to merge their research approaches and to identify funding sources to finance their projects.